The Nature of Ethical Disagreement
I'll mention the tower of Babel because it is one of the more useful myths. Before the tower fell we can imagine that everyone spoke the same language and I mean truly spoke the same language. There was no disagreement about what words meant. So disagreements about what one was saying, or what it meant to say this or that, were not an issue, were not even conceivable. But this does not mean that this ancient people were not sometimes mistaken about the facts or never lied about the facts.
Aesthetic judgments offer another interesting case for disagreements.
For example: suppose Nimrod thought that blue was the most beautiful color while Abraham thought that orange was the most beautiful color. Both would be certain that each meant the same thing by calling their preferred color "the most beautiful" and both would be certain as to what each meant by "blue" and "orange". And yet they disagreed.
Charles L. Stevenson *
When people disagree about the
value of something -- one saying that it
or right, and another that it is
bad or wrong--by what methods of
argument or inquiry can their disagree-
ment be resolved? Can it be resolved by
the methods of science, or does it re-
quire methods of some other kind, or
is it open to no rational solution at all?
The question must be clarified be-
fore it can be answered. And the word
that is particularly in need of clarifica-
tion, as we shall see, is the word "dis-
Let us begin by noting that "dis-
agreement" has two broad senses: In
the first sense it refers to what I shall
call "disagreement in belief." This oc-
curs when Mr. A believes p
, when Mr.
B believes not-p
, or something incom-
patible with p
, and when neither is
content to let the belief of the other re-
main unchallenged. Thus doctors may
disagree in belief about the causes of an
illness; and friends may disagree in
belief about the exact date on which
they last met.
In the second sense, the word refers
to what I shall call "disagreement in
attitude." This occurs when Mr. A has
a favorable attitude to something, when
Mr. B has an unfavorable or less favor-
able attitude to it, and when neither is
content to let the other's attitude re-
main unchanged. The term "attitude"
is here used in much the same sense
that R. B. Perry uses "interest"; it
designates any psychological disposition
of being for or against something.
Hence love and hate are relatively spe-
cific kinds of attitudes, as are approval
and disapproval, and so on.
This second sense can be illustrated
in this way: Two men are planning to
have dinner together. One is particu-
larly anxious to eat at a certain restau-
rant, but the other doesn't like it. Tem-
porarily, then, the men cannot "agree"
on where to dine. Their argument may
be trivial, and perhaps only half seri-
ous; but in any case it represents a dis-
agreement in attitude. The men have
divergent preferences, and each is try-
ing to redirect the preference of the
Further examples are readily found.
Mrs. Smith wishes to cultivate only the
four hundred; Mr. Smith is loyal to his
old poker-playing friends. They accord-
ingly disagree, in attitude, about whom
to invite to their party. The progressive
mayor wants modern school-buildings
and large parks; the older citizens are
against these "new-fangled" ways; so
they disagree on civic policy. These
cases differ from the one about the
restaurant only in that the clash of atti-
tudes is more serious, and may lead to
more vigorous argument.
The difference between the two
senses of "disagreement" is essentially
this: the first involves an opposition of
beliefs, both of which cannot be true,
* Reprinted by permission from Readings
in Philosophical Analysis
, ed. Herbert Feigl
and Wilfrid Sellars ( New York: Appleton-
Century-Crofts, Inc., 1949), pp. 587-593.